Get the lowdown on four very different massage styles. Which one is right for you?
Swedish massage isn’t from Sweden. It likely gets its name from Theodore Melander, a Swedish physiotherapist who arrived in New York City 90 years ago, just in time for its birth as the world’s most hectic metropolis, and decided that Americans needed a physical outlet for the ailments of modern living.
Some things never change. Today, stress reduction, sleeplessness and office-chair stiffness make Swedish massage the most popular choice at spas across North America. It’s a necessary counter to the worker-bee lifestyle, meant to take Type A’s down a notch and to give busy people a regular way to unwind. The technique combines Melander’s philosophy (in 1916 he founded the Swedish Institute for massage therapy training) and French massage methods for a quintessential American goal: total relaxation.
To get these results, the simple, soothing therapy incorporates gentle kneading, strong but superficial strokes, and rhythmic chopping. The steps are blended together in a treatment that flows from the muscles on the legs and arms to the knots on the back and neck, a recipe for supreme restfulness. Added therapy is sometimes needed, which often comes in the form of another American invention — hot stones, which can soften tight spots.
While deep-tissue massage really goes after the muscles, Swedish proudly stays on the surface. That it’s deliberately undemanding is entirely the point. Your role should be a passive one, save for one flip from your back to your stomach midway through the treatment. In fact, dozing is a sign of the therapy’s success. “At the end of the day, there are some guests who aren’t here for the therapeutic benefits, per se,” says Sandra Sadowski, director of La Prairie at The Ritz-Carlton Spa New York, Central Park. “They have one free hour in their week. All they want is to relax and fall asleep.”
India’s authentic no-nonsense massage dates back five centuries. Because the original treatment focused on getting the skin in contact with copious amounts of oil — these were custom-blended with medicinal herbs from the Ayurvedic apothecary — it would hardly qualify as bodywork today. Doctors gave the treatments, and used very little friction, kneading or any of the lovely comforts we associate with massage.
The version offered in modern spas is far more luxurious and pampering than the original. That’s a good thing. You’re likely to experience some of the diagnostic tools and herbal remedies of Vedic healing philosophy, but to suit today’s spa-goers they’re delivered via sumptuous oils, salt blends and mud chosen for your specific needs.
To determine which products and Ayurvedic massage elements are right for you, spas like ESPA at The Ritz-Carlton Powerscourt, County Wicklow near Dublin, Ireland, evaluate your Ayurvedic constitution, or dosha. According to Vedas (Ayurvedic physicians), everyone fits into one of these three types. Whether you’re a vata, pitta or kapha depends on how you answer a few questions about your health, personality and preferences, as well as general observances of your body type. The consultation is an abbreviated, light-handed adaptation of the several-hours-long version found at real Ayurvedic clinics even today.
Depending upon your dosha, at the ESPA at Powerscourt you’ll receive a matching treatment prescription: the Vata Comforter, the Pitta Pacificer or the Kapha Stimulator. Each one includes the type of exfoliation, herbal massage oil and body wrap that’s right for you. The Vata Comforter, for example, offers solace for those who “suffer from dry skin, anxiety, and feel affected by cold, dry weather.” The spa remedy prescribed? A ritual that includes light exfoliation, light-to-medium massage pressure, and “mind-balancing” herbs like Brahmi and Oshadi mixed into nourishing massage oils and mud extracts for a concluding body wrap.
The multistep treatment feels like a luxurious spa experience, even if it was originally intended as therapy. But even today, Ayurvedic herbs blended with products can enhance the therapeutic benefits of any type of massage, says Pratima Raichur, a practicing Ayurvedic physician in New York City. And because the Vedas saw the need for specific herbs for specific ailments, they set the tone for today’s customized spa treatments and rituals.
Anti-Aging Body Treatment
Traditional Chinese massage and Tui Na are purposefully all thumbs. All the better to attack, rather than gently untangle, your knots. If you like deep tissue massage, then this massage goes one better, almost qualifying as an extreme sport. In fact, it’s helpful to know how to say “back off” or ask for less pressure in Mandarin before you enter the spa treatment room. (That said, many luxury spas automatically give Westerners a softer version, a Tui Na lite.)
Tui Na massage offered in spas like the one at The Ritz-Carlton, Beijing shares roots with Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), acupuncture and tai chi. All subscribe to the several-thousand-year-old idea that illnesses and imbalances of the mind and body, from stress to muscular pains, are caused by stagnant energy, or qi. This massage is not for the faint of heart or the fragile. Practitioners use deep pressure, traction and a firm grip as they roll and rub the joints and knead your body to its (almost) breaking point. The literal translation of Tui Na is “push-pull.”
The massage may sound sadistic, but the method is meant to get energy moving along the body’s energy pathways, or meridians, and bring blood to the muscles. According to TCM, meridians line the body, and are the places where stagnation occurs. To that end, the practitioner may also use her fingers and thumbs to stimulate the acupressure points that dot the meridians, all to get your energy flowing smoothly. Noah Rubinstein, an acupuncturist in New York, puts it this way: “Flowing energy equals health; stagnant energy doesn’t do us much good. It’s like maple syrup.”
You might think that a massage style fixated on circulation needn’t be so extreme. But under the vice grip of a Chinese Tui Na therapist, painful knots dissolve. Some spa-goers compare Tui Na to physical therapy or Rolfing, and swear by the relief they’ve gotten, even on intractable muscle pains. Consider it tough love.
Before it became a spa staple in Thailand, Thai massage was considered a medical treatment. That’s why you can still find it offered in that country’s hospitals and at temples like Wat Po.
Thai massage differs dramatically from a Western-style or Swedish massage. For one, it uses yoga-like stretches and pressure-point work to stimulate the body’s energy pathways. And, in most cases, the massage takes you off the massage table and onto a futon on the floor.
That’s all the better for the therapy and the therapist, who uses her body — not so much her hands — as a tool to stretch, twist and elongate yours. That’s the caveat of Thai massage: It demands interaction with your therapist, who will sit on your feet or legs to leverage you through a series of poses. (Amazingly, this allows even the tiniest of therapists to work on the bulkiest of basketball players.)
In a typical stretch, the therapist will sit on the back of your legs and pull your arms behind you to arch your spine and expand your chest. Some of these stretches are not unlike the corrections a yoga teacher might offer in a yoga class, which is why Thai massage is often called lazy man’s yoga.
Because there’s no way your modesty could be maintained under a sheet or towel during these moves, spas usually provide loose-fitting clothing (one-size-fits-most Thai fisherman pants are typical) .
Compared to a Swedish massage, a Thai massage can feel especially intense, particularly if stretching isn’t something you normally do. Many aficionados find the method invigorating — and leave feeling taller, more elongated and energized, instead of sluggish, says Sirikorn Jantawong, spa manager of ESPA at Phulay Bay, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve in Krabi, Thailand.
Thai massage turns the model of massage on its head: It isn’t a submissive practice where someone else unknots your muscles and puts you to sleep, but a limbering, invigorating, participatory experience.